Will academia ever graduate from sexism?

From the sexism of fresher’s week to under-employment after they graduate, to the closed walls of the highest echelons of academic institutions, Britain is failing its female students - even as their grades continue to rise

Heather McRobie
18 March 2013
mixed group of students taking an exam

Photo: wavebreakmedia / shutterstock

There is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives, goes the famous Audre Lorde quotation. Its implications lend themselves well to both issues of gender and issues of education in its various forms – threads that run throughout the facets of our lives, our various public and private manifestations of self. In the case of continued gender inequity, problematic gender blindness – and misogyny – within academia, it is time to join the dots to understand the experience of identifying or being identified as something other than straight white and male in the face of academic institutions.

Discrimination in academia cuts many ways; efforts to tackle it similarly respond in a variety of terms.  But a series of events in recent weeks have highlighted the problematics of sexism, in particular, in the world of higher education.

Let’s start, as many a campus novel has done, with the arrival at university. As recently captured in the Channel 4 television show ‘Fresh Meat’, the first week at university – ‘Fresher’s week’ –  is now barely imaginable as a cultural concept without the laddish sexism that has all the subtlety of a pint of snakebite – take the notions of ‘sharking’ or ‘seal-clubbing’, the phrases that, as the Everyday Sexism project has documented, seek to underscore the aggressive pursuit of female freshers by older male students.  These established tropes of student life are reinforced by club night promotions to students that implicitly or even overtly reference sexual assault and encourage the idea of ‘preying’ on intoxicated female students. The commendable work of university women’s organisations, from free Night Bus services run by Student Unions to often voluntarily-run rape crisis helplines, barely makes an impact in the face of a culture that makes light of unwanted sexual contact. 

There was a small media controversy last year when the Everyday Sexism project reported on the concept of ‘slut dropping’ – an alleged practice whereby male students offer to give a female student a lift home at the end of the night, then leave her, stranded, miles away from home. It emerged that there had only been one reported incident of this, rather than a real ‘trend’ on university campuses. What is prevalent, however, is the casual sexism of university events like ‘Pimps’n’Hoes’ parties organised by student unions across the country, regurgitating tired and unreconstructed machist tropes of gender roles as the predominant student-union-sponsored idea of what constitutes entertainment. Distaste for these events could be dismissed as aesthetic, with no female student being obligated to attend. What is more problematic is the acceptability of rape jokes – and promotion of the idea that rape is funny – on popular university websites such as Uni Lads. The discourse of Uni Lads – a linguistic quagmire of ‘worthless sluts’ and ‘2 out of 10s’ as the prevailing tone to refer to female contemporaries – sits grimly by the National Union of Students report that 14% of female students in Britain are assaulted during their time at university or college. 

And if, during that fresher’s week, a female student signs up to an activity such as, say, the university debating society, we can reasonably assume that in 2013 she will be able to participate on an equal footing? The controversy generated by the sexist abuse hurled during a competition between two university debating societies earlier this year seems to suggest otherwise.

While it may be hard to carve out a space, as a young student, free from the rape-jokey ‘banter’ of Uni Lad discourse, this can to some extent be demarcated as the ‘social’ side of the university experience. In the classrooms themselves at least, young women, it seems, are flourishing. A 2009 report on UK universities found that women now outperform men in almost every single aspect of higher education, and are both less likely to drop out of a university course and more likely to achieve a good grade of a 2:1 or First. 

Young woman in a lecture theatre

Photo: wavebreakmedia / shutterstockSuch a shift away from the traditional gender inequities of higher education would be more welcome, however, if they translated out of the lecture theatre and into the world of work. With pre-existing modes of indirect discrimination and the continued strength of ‘old boy’s networks’ already playing against their favour, young women who have graduated in recent years face the additional and pressing burden of recessional trends that harm their prospects. The face of the recessional ‘precariat’ is female inasmuch as women and young people were the two categories disproportionately affected by the job losses of the thick of the downturn; young women, it follows, have been particularly laid low by the economic crisis. Tory neo-liberal notions of ‘flexible’ work have capitalised on both the vulnerability of young people in the recession and older gendered tropes of ‘temping’ to push young women, particularly, into the precarity of ‘mini-jobs’. The anecdotes that direct sexism has played a role in employers’ job cuts, and the problematic way in which high street banks have capitalised on post-recession ‘tightening’ of restrictions on lending to female customers, locks women further into an existing economic disadvantage.

A recent American study also found that young female graduates had been insufficiently prepared for the workplace compared to their male counterparts, after a 2012 study by the American Association of University women found that young women make only 82% of the wages of their male peers a year after graduating, despite women’s relative over-performance at university. As this pay gap between recent graduates cannot be accounted for with the usual line used to dismiss income disparity between genders – that women have taken a career break to have children –  the report pointed to the lack of connections and encouragement female students are given in the face of the transition from university to the workplace, and gender discrimination in the early echelons of the workplace.

In the face of the hostile job market, the cliché has become – go hide in graduate school. Here, would the young women who have made it through the gauntlet of Uni Lad banter and the prospect of a gender-regressive recession find a safe haven? Female academics today are no longer pioneers – generations of women have paved the way before those who begin down this path in the twenty-first century. Structurally, however, academic institutions are male – male figureheads and male money being where power truly lies, just as academic institutions remain bastions of race and class privilege whatever inroads have been made to redress historical inequalities. The issue of sexism in science, in particular, made headlines recently after a researcher at Yale ran an experiment, creating application forms for the position of a laboratory manager which were sent to faculty members to assess ‘competence’, the identical applications given the names, variously, of ‘John’ and ‘Jennifer’.  Sure enough, ‘Jennifer’ was ranked as less competent and offered a lower starting salary. Similarly, a recent study commissioned by the London Mathematical Society found only 6% of UK maths professors are women and pointed to the low priority given to diversity initiatives required to redress historic inequalities.

While academia is sometimes praised for being an environment in which work such as research is sufficiently flexible that it mitigates against the difficulties often faced by workers who are raising children, recent reports also highlight that, to progress in academia, gender still matters. A study by the American Historical Association which looked at promotions within university history faculties as correlated to gender and marital status found that being married helped men achieve promotions, but that the opposite was true of women. The findings pointed to the role of the ‘professor’s wife’ – a kind of small-scale academic First Lady – as a necessary prerequisite for career advancement. On a broader level, the continued hostility with which ‘gender studies’ as a discipline is met by other academics and institutional figures within academia – as outlined in the recent openDemocracy article by Maria Do Mar Pereira – indicates that the discussions of gender equality that have taken place within the varied landscape of feminism and within the gender studies discipline have far to go before they permeate the practices of academic institutions themselves.

The sexist abuse hurled at female academics, from the university debating society to the misogynistic internet vitriol hurled at Professor Mary Beard earlier this year, is a kind of sledgehammer version of sexism in academia itself, a raw and infantile hatred at a woman being intellectual in the public sphere. But it is the subtle, structural issues of the pay gap and the indirect discrimination outlined in the researcher’s findings on ‘John’ and ‘Jennifer’ that taint daily realities and warp careers.

The combination of the traditional male domination of the higher echelons of academia, the mini-machism of the ‘sharking’ culture of undergraduate life and the gendered dimensions of the recessional workplace is a holy trinity of structural sexism. (That young people in the recession as a whole have largely been held hostage to the Browne report’s vision of education as a commodity is another issue). While we do not live single issue lives, there is a single recurring figure being pushed down by these structures: young women struggling through the recession, from the lecture theatre to the university debating society to the workplace to the cultural and social climates they inhabit frequently on an unequal footing.

Undergraduate English students are still likely to encounter Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own on their first-year reading lists, but that parable of those doors closing in the face of the young woman trying to learn is not dead text, it is the current unfolding lives of female students today in post-Browne, ‘precariat’ Britain. These are the young women who Uni Lad guys in college bars score as ‘2 out of 10’ before joking about Rohyptnol; these are the young women who are more likely to find themselves unemployed or underemployed after they graduate. They deserve better than the marks the world has given them.


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